On a Saturday afternoon, I remotely interviewed an artist by the name of Madiha Siraj, who is well known for her large-scale installations and polymer clay sculptural work.
Madiha Siraj is a Muslim-American artist from Southern California. Her journey started when she was very young. Being always interested in art, Madiha asks herself all the time: “If I wasn’t an artist, what would I be doing?” And the answer always comes back to she can’t really imagine doing anything else. When she was younger, she continued exploring her path as an artist, and her focus finally settled on non-traditional medium and abstract presentation of artwork.
At the University of California, San Diego, Madiha studied under Kim MacConnel, a prominent pattern and decoration movement artist who utilized non-traditional materials and bright colors in contrast with the minimalists of the time. The tactile, handmade quality of his work greatly influenced Siraj’s practice. Her installation “Oyster EB-12” is Siraj’s attempt at creating patterns with inexpensive everyday materials like paint swatches. The artist reverses the mundanity of these objects by creating a space-altering environment, allowing the viewer to enter a pixelated reality. “Oyster EB-12” was displayed at the Craft Forward Symposium in San Francisco in 2011, and her work has been featured in publications including Design Milk and Hi-Fructose Magazine.
Madiha also started using polymer clay around the time when she was in undergrad, but it wasn’t until later after graduate school that she started to dedicate herself to this medium. This widely available crafting material is used in all middle school art classes, but is rare in most professional artists’ works. According to Madiha, a lot of people in the ceramic community have more prejudice towards polymer clay. One of the reasons she loves polymer clay is that it is a mass produced commercial material. “I often think, why not? Why do we have to equate fine art with a studio setting and expensive materials?”
Madiha Siraj’s polymer clay works have a large range of sizes, from a single-hand size, all the way up to 35 inches. They are all relief sculptural paintings made from countless small pieces of colorful clay. She hand makes every single little piece of clay in her works, some of the pieces are made using molds, but most of them are hand sculpted. “Many people don’t like tedious work, but I enjoy it a lot.” She said with a smile. Some of her artworks are also bedazzled with beads, glitter and microbeads. They reflect on her love of bright colors and tactile patterns but are presented as a playful experience, allowing the audience more room for interpretation. “I was inspired by the idea of Aniconism, which means the rejection of any images that use figuration or animals in my work.” She explains, “When you take the whole genre of figures, comics or animals out of your work, you realize how difficult it is to make something that is immediately beautiful, powerful and interesting to look at.”
Her abstract works are free for interpretation. Coral reefs, flower seas, ocean waves, and even bacteria colonies, they can be whatever you think it is. For Madiha, when creating the series Gradients, she thought about the cosmos. Countless small pieces of clay were arranged, baked and then glued to a huge 35” wooden panel. This is my personal favorite series.
Some of Madiha’s polymer clay art has direct reference to her own culture, which in this case, Islamic geometric patterns. “I am a first-generation Pakistani American and I’ve been lucky enough to have visited my homeland, Pakistan, the Middle East and Turkey many times.” She told me, from a young age she has been inspired by Islamic architecture, calligraphy, carpets and rugs, paintings and tapestries. In Islamic art, shapes are repeated to represent the perfection of the universe and God’s design. By using these patterns, artists mimic the perfection of God’s universe but ultimately fall short due to human error. This concept inspired Madiha to celebrate the inevitable imperfections that appear in her work.
Being a Muslim definitely has a big impact on Madiha’s artist career as well as her choice of subject matter. In her ongoing series “99 Names for The One,” so far she has over 80 small pieces of polymer clay art, there are still a few left for her to make in order to reach 99 pieces in total. In Islam, there are 99 different names for One God, in this way Madiha uses the same pattern and interprets the same pattern in 99 different ways. However, she said, “I don’t think of my art as very religious, because I feel like it can be difficult for people who have no knowledge of Islam to approach work that might be outside of their knowledge base, this is just a guiding principal that I follow in my own practice” I think this is the charm of art, it is a way that artists arrange themselves in the world.
I think it’s very fascinating that there are so many details in Madiha’s pieces. When looking closely, the overwhelming details seem like they can engulf the viewer. However, when you step back and look at it from a far distance, everything just goes together. It’s like maximalism and minimalism, chaos and harmony all in one place. For her, she thinks that the details are the most important part of her work. She said, “The details are what keep me interested in creating the work. I feel like the more details there are, the more I can get into it. Every little piece of clay is like a small cosmo to me. I’d like to think that every single piece is necessary and every single thing is considered in my work. When someone sees my work or buys one of my pieces, the details are my love letter to them.”
You can see all Madiha Siraj’s work online at www.madihasiraj.com or see in progress photos at @madihasirajart on Instagram. She is always interested in taking commissions and working with people.
For young artists, Madiha Siraj suggested they go to their studio on a daily basis, even if they do things other than creating artworks there. “It’s a habit forming,” she said, “in order to have a sustainable artist career.” Another suggestion from her is to engage with an artist community: “I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be an artist. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I began to realize that the world of art was bigger than any one person’s contribution, and that we each had a fleeting role to contribute to a collective body of artwork that would exist forever.
“I hate to say it because it’s such a cliché, but finding your tribe is very important. Finding other artists who you admire and are positive and generous with their time can really help you grow. There are a few artists who exist in vacuums but most of us need that community to help us grow.”